ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Technology Leaps and Tighter Budgets Reshaping Drone Market
Surprisingly powerful surveillance sensors compressed into small packages and new software tools are revolutionizing the drone market in a wide cross-section of industries.
The Pentagon expects to capitalize on this emerging technology. For the military, miniaturized autonomous aircraft hold much promise as weapons that could give forces an edge in combat, and be far less costly than the traditional systems used for data collection and targeting.
Tiny robot aircraft that self-deploy to serve as “eyes and ears” and also in killer roles are on a path to become larger players in the battlefield. A study recently unveiled by the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance characterizes small drones as “exponential force multipliers.”
Backpack-size drones that troops deploy with minimum effort have been staples of war for years. More advanced systems have now entered the market, like the Blackwing miniature kamikaze missile that AeroVironment developed with Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command funding. This is the type of technology that the Pentagon wants because it is cheaper than many current systems and can be launched from most major platforms — submarines, surface ships, ground vehicles or aircraft, said Dave Sharpin, vice president for business development at AeroVironment.
“Having off-board sensing from any platform on a moment’s notice is going to be important,” he said in an interview. “You want to have something that can see what’s out there” and not be detected. “We’ve invested a lot” in this technology, Sharpin said.
The Army, Marine Corps and Air Force special tactics teams over the past decade have been the company’s top buyers of the Raven, Puma and Wasp backpack drones. The military has deployed small unmanned aircraft for “limited, tactical objectives,” the Air Force report said. As more advanced sensors and navigation systems become available, these low-cost aircraft could take on significant roles, and they have “demonstrated the potential to execute a broader range of full-spectrum missions,” noted the Air Force “Small Unmanned Air Systems Flight Plan 2016-2036.”
The Blackwing, for instance, has advanced electronics usually found in much larger missiles — electro-optical and infrared sensors, selective availability anti-spoofing module, GPS and a secure digital data link.
Less expensive, easier to upgrade autonomous systems are pillars of the Pentagon’s “third offset” innovation strategy to counter adversaries that increasingly are developing “anti-access area denial” weapons that would limit the U.S. military’s freedom of movement.
With defense budgets projected to stay flat in the foreseeable future, the military is enthusiastic about the potential of small drones, the Air Force study said. There is a growing “demand for more affordable systems with the same or similar capability as current aging and legacy systems.”
Small drones today make up a negligible fraction of the Pentagon’s annual expenditures on unmanned aircraft. The Defense Department spent about $14 billion in the last five years on remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft, according to the market intelligence firm Govini. Most of the funding was for big-ticket drones like the Reaper, Global Hawk and Gray Eagle. The Army accounts for42 percent of the market, the Air Force represents 37 percent and the Navy 14 percent. The rest were “defense-wide” purchases.
Greater use of small unmanned aircraft “supports Defense Department ‘better buying’ initiatives to reverse the cost curve by looking at lower-cost alternatives, enabling operational agility against a diverse set of adversaries and operational environments,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Shifts in how the military and other security agencies foresee using drones in the future makes this a “very interesting time” for companies in the sector, said Sharpin.
A burgeoning submarket for AeroVironment are tethered aircraft. “We see it as a growing business,” he said. Sharpin was in Tampa, Florida, last month, marketing a tethered surveillance drone to the
U.S. Special Operations Command. The company developed a prototype with funding from the United States Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, or CTTSO, a multiagency group.
The military is looking at the use of tethered drones as “virtual observation towers,” said Sharpin. They could be deployed at forward military bases or used commercially to protect buildings or ground vehicles as they move. “We see both defense and commercial applications,” he said. “We put a lot of safeguards in it. If it loses power we have a safety feature that brings it down.”
AeroVironment sees vast opportunities in the commercial and consumer drone markets but wants to also deepen its roots in the defense sector. The commercial side is becoming crowded and highly competitive. “I see a ton of players,” said Sharpin. At some point, the market will become oversaturated, he noted. “I think there will be consolidation.”
Photo: Air Force